Mind Over Miller: An elephant-size job

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Apr 01, 2006

Dr. Dean Hendrickson, a veterinary surgeon at Colorado State University, is part of a team that has been performing vasectomies on wild elephants in overpopulated South African game reserves. The idea is to sterilize the dominant bulls, which will then breed with the female elephants without impregnating them.

Performing vasectomies on elephants is difficult because the testes of the elephant are intra-abdominal. And, obviously, a bull elephant has a big abdomen. Dr. Hendrickson's team has been using a laparoscopic technique.

I helped castrate a 9,000-lb bull elephant once. The owner of Circus Vargas called me because he had a highly trained bull elephant that was becoming unruly with age, and he wanted me to castrate it. I told Mr. Vargas that I would perform the operation provided that Dr. Murray Fowler of the University of California School of Veterinary Medicine was available to be the chief surgeon. At the time, Dr. Fowler was the only person who had castrated a male elephant and had it survive.

I telephoned Dr. Fowler, and he readily agreed to help. He said, enthusiastically, that he had created a new instrument for the task—a three-and-a-half-foot-long écraseur that could remove testicles from deep in the belly of a full-grown elephant—and he was eager to try it out.

I then assembled the rest of the surgical team. My partner Dr. Jim Peddie would be the second surgeon, and another partner Dr. Bob Kind, who was six-and-a-half-feet tall and had long arms, would be the third surgeon. I would be the anesthetist, and for the task, I planned to use a combination of xylazine and etorphine. We agreed to meet at 9 on a Monday morning on the circus lot in Northridge, Calif.

At 5 a.m. that Monday, Dr. Fowler went to the Sacramento airport. He carried his long, steel écraseur, which was autoclaved and wrapped. At the time, airport X-ray machines were not yet in use, but a series of hijackings had created the need for the first airport security stations. As Dr. Fowler went through security with his carryon luggage, the security officer asked him to unwrap his package.

"I can't," he explained. "It's a sterilized surgical instrument."

The officer lifted the submachine-gun-size package and asked, "What kind of surgical instrument?"

Dr. Fowler, who was dressed in a field jacket, blue jeans, and work boots, said, "It's for castrating elephants. I'm on my way to Los Angeles to castrate an elephant."

The security officer reacted to this in a completely unreasonable manner, and Dr. Fowler nearly missed his flight before it was determined he was a professor and not a terrorist.

Knowing how much prolonged immobilization adversely affects horses, I told the surgical team that I'd like the procedure completed within half an hour, if possible. Three hours later, as the surgeons closed the flank incision, I agonized, wondering whether our patient would recover from anesthesia. However, within minutes of administering an etorphine antagonist, I was relieved to see the elephant roll onto its sternum, arise, and walk over to a pile of hay and start to eat.

Castrating male animals is one of the most common procedures in veterinary practice, but this case was a bit unusual. If you are ever asked to castrate an elephant, I recommend that you consider referring the case to Dr. Fowler.

Robert M. Miller, DVM, is an author and a cartoonist, speaker, and Veterinary Medicine Practitioner Advisory Board member from Thousand Oaks, Calif. His thoughts in "Mind Over Miller" are drawn from 32 years as a mixed-animal practitioner. Visit his Web site at http://www.robertmmiller.com/